Thursday, December 27, 2012

How Do You Hear?

Luke 1:39-55, How Do you Hear? Advent IV
I Can Hear Music
Let’s consider How WE hear Mary’s words, her ‘song’ as it is known.
Whenever I think about listening to a song - I hear One of my favorites, “I Can Hear Music” by the Beach Boys. ..
”This is the way I always dreamed it would be...the way that it is, when you are holding me...I can hear music, I can hear music” and at the end of the song it repeats, “I hear the music all the time...”

I think from the time the angel Gabriel first surprised Mary with the outrageous news of her pregnancy, Mary could hear the music all the time. . .   I don’t think she was singing, “this is the way I dreamed it would be”... Because who could have imagined, let alone dreamed of becoming pregnant before marriage, at a time when that shame would have been life-threatening.  .  .But I do think, from that first day on, she ‘could hear the music all the time.”

Do You Hear What I Hear?
Basically Mary is singing to Elizabeth and everyone around her, 
“Do you hear what I hear?” 
For generations, commentators have speculated about why Mary went to see Elizabeth. (ASK?)

MINE: I think since Gabriel told Mary that Elizabeth had conceived too, Mary went to ask her, “Do you hear what I hear?”  
Surely at that point, she must have longed to talk with someone else who has experienced Divine Intervention.

Divine Intervention
There’s a song by Taking Back Sunday called, “Divine Intervention” Those lyrics are, “Despondent, distracted, vicious and romantic; these are a few of my favorite things” 
I can’t image the range of emotions Mary went through as she Accepted and affirmed God’s message, feeling the growth inside her. Even before she could feel a kick, her body was changing to accept the new life within.

The lyrics of Divine Intervention continue to say, “Something real, make it timeless, an act of God and nothing less will be accepted.” 

Surely Mary wondered how anyone else would ever know that this life inside her WAS an act of God. . . But Elizabeth. .she knew.
She knew about what happens when God answers “Yes” to prayer.  So only Elizabeth could understand what was happening to Mary after she said, “Yes” to God.

My Soul Proclaims with Wonder
we’ve already sung a song about ‘Mary’s Song’  “My soul proclaims with wonder the greatness of the Lord”, AND we’ve heard the scripture read from 2 very different viewpoints, 
I chose some other songs to help relate to Mary’s words. Maybe that seems silly, but let me explain with a tiny bit of history. 
“Mary’s song inspired the ‘Feast of Fools’, a name given to some of the Christmas celebrations for centuries throughout the church. 
It became a literal acting out of the Magnificat. . .a witness to the God ‘whose inclination is to topple human power structures and to raise the downtrodden to a position of honor and feasting’

But it was a rather ‘odd’ witness.

Holly Jolly Christmas
“Throughout medieval and early modern Europe, Christmas was a time for festive reversals of status. As early as the ninth century, a mock patrriarch burlesqued the Eucharist, and rode thru the streets on a donkey bringing it right into the church. 
As late as 1685, lay brothers and servants put on the priests’ vestments inside out, held the worship books upside down..wore spectacles with rounds of orange peel instead of glasses.. 
They blew the ashes from incense on each other... and instead of proper liturgical chant, they mumbled gibberish.”

It makes some of my silly Christmas songs about Santa stuck in a chimney, sound tame!  . . Maybe we should get silly too. Instead of “God rest you merry gentlemen” I heard,  
The restroom door said Gentlemen
And I would like to find
The crummy little creep who had the nerve to switch the sign
Are you Surprised? I now think that Burl Ives had it right when he sang, “It’s a ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’”! 
(ASK: What’s your favorite crazy Christmas song?)
Grandma run over...

Sometimes we need to lighten up. It helps us Re-examine our concerns about what is proper and right in order to open our ears to God’s ‘Song in the Air’ or be able to see a miraculous ‘Star In The Sky’ . . . What would it take for you to look up and really expect a miracle on an ‘O Holy Night’?

It might take some drastic side-splitting laughter, to remind US that the God who created life in Mary and Elizabeth, means to turn our ideas of what is ‘just and proper’ upside-down.

Do You Hear What I Hear? 
If any of today’s actors, or people in the Christmas story were to ask us, “Do you hear what I hear?” we would have to say, “I don’t think so...” . . But just two days before Christmas, in 2012,
two days after we survived the Mayan prediction of the “end of the world, as we know it..” (that’s another song lyric, BTW) 
I don’t think, answering “I don’t hear” is good enough.

We have to admit that IT IS hard for us to hear God’s good news the way Mary did. We are as different from her and her world, as our poor young woman is from the rich young man of the 1st century.

If I listen from the perspective of wealth - which is how the rest of the world see us in the USA, then Mary’s song is depressing, if not actually scarier than the ‘end of the world.’
Especially these lyrics, 
“He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
He has brought down the powerful, 
he has sent the rich away empty.” 

It reminds me of the Bible study we did a couple years ago. After an intense overview of Jesus’ message aimed at one well-off person after another, we asked, Is there any good news here for us?”
ASK: How do Mary’s words make you FEEL?
 Are they a promise... Or a threat?... 

Elaine Heath wrote a book about the ‘threat the church faces, The Mystic Way of Evangelism. She wonders if Mary's message is to the Christian church in America today.  I think we have reminisced like this person she wrote about; 
"Recently, she says, a church member mentioned the “good old days” when we had to put up folding chairs in the aisles on Easter Sunday [& Christmas]". . . .Do you remember those days?

Heath asks, “Is God at work wrenching our alluring memories of the church’s social prominence and significance from our minds?
Ripping dreams of fame and fortune from our imaginations?. 
Is God inviting us to let go of that old image of ‘church’ and the accompanying dreams and memories?"
 . . . .so we learn how to welcome Gabriel’s message for 2013/our day?   

. . .
“Fling wide the door, unbar the gate” is another Christmas carol, #186 in our hymnal
Can we be as open as Mary to God when life doesn’t fit our ideas of ‘proper and right’?

Good News
There IS good news here for us. Even if it takes, a little chorus of, “Grandma got run over by a reindeer” to loosen us up to hear it.
“God does not obliterate the powerful so the lowly can take their  places. (or our places?) 
Rather God is at work in individual lives (like Mary's) AND in the social order as a whole -
God is at work In order to subvert the very structure of society that supports the distinctions”
 that keep people apart. . . .
- - the Walls that exist between powerful and powerless, 
rich and poor, in and out, privileged and disadvantaged.

When we look closely at today’s scripture we find clues all thru it that are good news for US. 

“God’s reversal of fortunes is not intended to raise violent resistance or drive the wealthy and powerful to despair.” We are to hear this ‘Good News’ the way Jesus preached it in story and parable. & even in song --- With listening ears and enlightened eyes.  With our hearts opened- - - -perhaps by laughter. 

Then we can really hear the “reminder, to deal with our wealth in a way that brings us into a positive relationship with the poor in order for ALL of US  to partake in the same promised salvation.”

We really are ALL singing the same song. And Christmas is the perfect time to realize it.

WE, regardless of our individual wealth or position, 
or what we miss about the former ‘good ol’ days 
-are to maintain circles of ‘kinship’ with everyone, so that we can FEEL the need and the hunger - 
FEEL the loneliness and the grief around us -
So we will naturally reach out a hand to help. . .(softly) our sisters and our brothers. 

It’s Together that we, ‘Come ----  all ye faithful’...
Thomas Kinkade

  And we do sing 
“That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,  who touch their harps of gold;

Right Now, as we all join in the: “Peace on the earth, & good will to people we can really mean ALL, ALL kinds of people.

The end
1 quoted from Harris, Carnival, 140 from E. K. Chambers, The Medieval Stage (London: Oxford Univ.Press, 1903), 1:317-18
2 Charles L. Campbell Feasting On The Word (Lousiville: WJK, 2009)96-7

3 ibid p. 97 quoted from Carnival

5 Charles L. Campbell  Feasting On The Word Homiletical (Louisville: WJK, 2009)93
6 Stephen A. Cooper Feasting On The Word Exegetical (Louisville: WJK, 2009)97

Blessing and Sending
May the God of justice be your path,
The Lord of mercy be your guide,
And the Spirit of love be your light,
This day and forevermore.
7 Kimberly Bracken Long, ed Feasting on the Word Worship Companion (Louisville:WJK,2012)19

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Weight of Christmas

I picked the title for today’s sermon weeks ago, long before I knew how heavy today would feel. 
Once again we sit under the weight of tragedy. Once again violence has cast its shadow over a town and over all God’s people as we sit in sympathy with families who have lost a child, a parent, a loved one.
As God’s people do, we seek help from scripture, comfort and answers. 
I must be clear, as you have heard me say before: I DO NOT AGREE WITH THOSE WHO SAY THIS IS ALL GOD’S WILL. 

Keep that in mind, we still seek answers, or at least a message of comfort as the gathered community today. 
 . . 
At first hearing the joy and celebration expressed in some of today’s scriptures, it seems out of place. We have to seek diligently to find the enlightenment we need. It’s as if God was saying sit with it all just a minute. It’s ok to feel what you feel. If you will just be still you will FEEL ME - nearby. . . Just Listen.
(if not read already, read Zephaniah 3:14-20 here)
I sat and realized again that scripture has to be read in community to be understood FOR a community. It is here, together that we can truly hear the message God’s people need to hear. 
It is in our own stories, that we learn how to understand the stories pivotal to our faith. It is in these stories (BIBLE) that all human experience is reflected and related to the gift of God’s wisdom.

We call this process, discernment. It’s hard work. It’s the weight, the responsibility of the gift of Christmas. It’s given to share.

(my story)
When I was discerning, if I was being called away from one church (‘call’ has multiple parts, 1st you must be called away, before you can be called ‘to’). I met with the district executive. 
There were the typical conversations about gifts for ministry and the needs of other congregations. Practical notes about the many places not open to women in the COB. Questions also about experience and interest. 
And then he said, “when you are waiting for God to open the way, sometimes you have to ‘lean’ on the door”.

Lean on the Door. . .That phrase has stayed with me ever since. It popped up this week in a reflection on the Zephaniah passage you heard. 
Jennifer Ryan Ayers wrote;
“The Advent season walks us forward toward that birth the angels sang. But Zephaniah assures us that God also comes to humanity in the community of faith. God’s presence heals, enlivens, and challenges humanity to lean into God’s promises for an alternative future.”

It’s not easy to lean into promise when you feel beat down by grief. Perhaps the leaning posture begins on another person’s shoulder at such times when the weight of life is too heavy. Again, within the community, we lean on each other and together find the strength to ‘lean on the door’.

When we do this together, instead of hearing a disconnect in the words, “Rejoice and exult with all your heart...” 
We can grab ahold of “I will remove disaster from you. . I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. I will save, ... I will gather, and ... I will change shame into praise. . I will bring you home. . When I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.” 
Certainly in Jesus’ day these words would have been read in the hope of salvation from the oppressive reign of Roman rulers.
Just as in Zephaniah’s day the promise was to gather exiles back together from Babylon & return, at least a remnant, to Israel. of God’s do you hear these words today? In what promises do you trust?
Do you hear a message of hope?
We didn’t read the rest of Luke 3 that began with last week’s scripture, but we heard part of it in our call to worship. When John cried out against the evil found in humanity the people didn’t make excuses. Instead they asked, ‘what then shall we do?’

It helps to have something specific to say, or do. We get so afraid of saying the ‘wrong’ thing that we say nothing and do nothing. 
We are Christ’s community and we have a role to play when tragedy strikes. It is not to point fingers, but to encircle others with our arms.
It may be to sit quietly beside someone supporting them while they lean... Or it may be to hold back the tide of evil that comes with trite sayings.

It helps to find help. I read an article that reminded me of many similar pieces designed to help us discern what NOT to say, before we open our mouths.

Rev Emily Heath put these words on her ‘absolutely NOT’ list.:

1. "God just needed another angel."
Portraying God as someone who arbitrarily kills kids to fill celestial openings is neither faithful to God, nor helpful to grieving parents.
2. "Thank goodness you have other children," or, "You're young. You can have more kids."
Children are not interchangeable or replaceable. The loss of a child will always be a loss, no matter how many other children a parent has or will have.
3. He/she was just on loan to you from God.
The message is that God is so capricious that God will break parents' hearts at will just because God can. It also communicates to parents and loved ones that they are not really entitled to their grief.
4. God doesn't give you more than you can handle.
Actually, some people do get a lot more than any one person should ever have to handle. And it doesn't come from God. Don't trivialize someone's grief with a "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" mentality.
(last but not least)
5. We may not understand it, but this was God's will.
Unless you are God, don't use this line.
Seriously, God does not will death, destruction on children, don’t pretend you know what God wills when someone else has suffered such tragedy.  AND, take responsibility to contradict anyone who says this! 
How many parents have suffered thinking THEY did something wrong to deserve their child’s death or that God WILLED their child to die. YOU represent the message of light. Stop anyone who hear saying such nonsense!
Did that help any? Have you ever been told one of these lines when you were in pain?  (answers)

It helps to know how to limit our tendencies to make everything all right when it isn’t. We can’t ‘fix’ this for someone else. We can be a friend, & a loving presence. We can’t make their loved one return from the dead.

We need to practice the self-limitation that John the baptist suggested. He spoke of economic injustice and said, limit yourselves to one coat if you have 2, give one away.
Perhaps we also need to consider limiting our freedoms, which we so love in the USA so that the restrictions we willingly place on ourselves, will also be placed on those who would act irresponsibly. With guns, or other people’s money.

All this will be considered and discussed in the days ahead. But for now, when we are faced with tragedy and we limit our impulse to ‘fix’ by trying not to say the WRONG thing, we still wonder, 

“What DO we SAY?”
Rev Heath suggests the following:
And here are five things to say:

1. I don't believe God wanted this or willed it.
A grieving friend or family member is likely hearing that this is God's will from a number of other people. Affirm the idea that it may very well not be.
2. Tell them, “It's okay to be angry, and I'm a safe person for you express that anger to if you need it.”
Anger is an essential part of the grieving process, but many don't know where to talk about it because they are often silenced by others when they express their feelings. (For instance, they may be told they have no right to be angry at God.) By saying you are a safe person to share all feelings, including anger, with, you help the grieving person know where they can turn. God is big enough to handle OUR anger.
3. When everyone else is trying to fix death with words, tell them,  “It's not okay.”
It seems so obvious, but sometimes this doesn't get said. Sometimes the pieces don't fit. Sometimes nothing works out right. And sometimes there is no way to fix it. Naming it can be helpful for some because it lets them know you won't sugarcoat their grief.
4. Tell the truth, say, “I don't know why this happened.”
When trauma happens, the shock and emotion comes first. But not long after comes our human need to try to explain "why?" The reality is that often we cannot. The grieving person will likely have heard a lot of theories about why a trauma occurred. Sometimes it's best not to add to the chorus, but to just acknowledge what you do not know.
5. Say, “I can't imagine what you are going through, but I am here to support you in whatever way feels best.”
Even if you have faced a similar loss, remember that each loss is different. Saying "I know how you're feeling" is often untrue. Instead, ask how the grieving person is feeling. And then ask what you can do to help. Then, do it and respect the boundaries around what they don't want help with at this point. You will be putting some control back into the hands of the grieving person, who often feels like they have lost so much of it.

Well Community? Do those specifics help? Do they give you actionable ideas to answer the question, “What then shall we do?”

I hope these give us specifics to work on as we lean on the door of discernment. 
Before we go today, We are left with one more scripture, Paul’s message from Philippians that we heard prior to our prayer. 
He is giving instructions for prayer which is very much a part of our discernment.
 Rejoice and don’t worry sounds callous if we remove them from the reality of Paul’s life. The truth is, he spoke or wrote this out of a life filled harsh pain and suffering. 

But listen closely, because He is telling us to ‘lean on the door.’
We are “ everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let OUR requests be made known to God”  

It is because these words come from Paul, who suffered and was eventually killed for his ministry, that we can trust the words. Not removing them from reality but facing reality, amidst pain, we can face the future with trust, he did.

And when we have the strength to get up from leaning on each other, together we can lean on the door...with petitions for ourselves and others, we can present all our concerns, our pain, our confusion to God.

               Trust . . .In the peace that passes all understanding...
know that it will come. 
Leaning together, is how we bear and rejoice in the weight of Christmas.

1 Jennifer Ryan Ayers Daily Feast Year C Bostrom, Caldwell, Riess, eds (Louisville: WJK, 2012)20

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Advent Wisdom; follow the instructions and wait

I am really behind the times. I have been preaching, obviously either too busy or not good enough to post? ah well, here's tomorrow's. I apologize that I haven't take the time to remove the caps that I use for spoken emphasis.

Christmas Amaryllis: (read box) Trav table from office; Children’s advent calendars
Have you grown one of these Amaryllis plants? 

My family will tell you that I grow very little. Only the simplest, sturdiest plants can withstand my sporadic attention. So waiting for an Amaryllis bloom and timing things right is a challenge for me. Altho it seems pretty simple. All I have to do is follow the instructions, wait patiently, and trust that nature's built in timetable will cause a bloom to result. 
That's the wise message for our journey to ADVENT and it comes right out of today’s scriptures; in Advent we are to follow the instructions and wait!

Let me read you part of Ps. 25 designated for today; Read psalm,
Make me to know your ways, O LORD;
Teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
For you are the God of my salvation;
For you I wait all day long.
Along with Jeremiah’s message about a promise to be fulfilled, Ps. 25 offers us an entrance or beginning for Advent. 

Advent IS a time of waiting, a time of preparation. But it is NOT the same as a countdown to Christmas. The rest of the world can’t wait for the END of their waiting, the 25th is their day of giving and GETTING. 
WE wait not for an END but for a BEGINNING.1
 We wait for God to birth new life into the world and its the BEGINNING of our Christmas Season - which lasts for 12 days and THEN we get to celebrate again, at Epiphany, the revealing of God to humankind.

With all the emphasis (and excitement) that surrounds our waiting we naturally want to know just WHAT we are supposed to do to prepare.
No matter which text we read, You see an admonition to 
follow the instructions and wait!

I think the best exercise for me this Advent is to take on this dead-looking bulb that holds the promise of new life.
With a little help, we can get this Amaryllis planted and ready to burst into bloom.
I remove from Box, read instructions,
Set pot on tray, remove bulb
Add dirt, bulb, more dirt, a little water.
...the instructions say..moist not wet and lots of sun, never below 60’

Together, I think we can do this...

   Advent waiting is also something we do in community.
Our Waiting is an act of faith. That’s why it takes all of us together to keep us on track.
In Advent we wait for the promise of new life to be fulfilled .  . .we Trust that God's natural calendar will result in the bursting forth of new life; a lovely bloom, at just the right time.
Jeremiah says, “
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made...In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

The Right time is καιρος time. Which is that special word for God’s time that adds mystery to the clock - in fact it pretty much tosses a regular clock and our daily calendars out the window.

I realize that lost calendars can be frightening to us, especially when schedules are full of extra events. If you want to put any professional, a soccer mom or dad, or a student, into a panic - just hide their agenda or daytimer calendar and watch what happens.

We are used to living by the clock and calendar. We think we understand time. But God’s time, καιρος, needs a different set of instructions. “teach me your ways, O LORD” means learning a new way to tell time.  And we learn how to wait...for just the right time. - καιρος

Life's normal operating instructions say pay attention to your calendar, sync your watches, and you will BE ON-Time and not miss anything.
καιρος time says live according to God’s rules, regardless of what day it is; wait, watch, ....
καιρος  is not so much about BEING ON-time as learning how to MAKE time for God's priorities. 
Secular life says Christmas is very nostalgic, so we review the past. OR we consume like crazy because we are conditioned to think we NEED everything we’ve been told to WANT in the very IMMEDIATE present.
Advent is a FORWARD looking time, where we learn to wait with expectation for what God brings about in God’s time and our immediate present is spent following those directions for living.
When we do, We find out what life is REALLY about - and we don’t miss what is really important about Advent, Christmas or all life.
Learning to live in καιρος  is learning how to participate in the justice and righteousness that the Lord of Life will birth into our world. - some of it begins right now; with us.
The day is coming says Jeremiah; a day when the Lord will execute justice.
Jesus said, the day is coming and is now here, when those who hear my voice, even the dead, will live. (John 5:25)
The new life of Christmas comes not only to Mary & Joseph but to the world, then and now, every time we join with God in bringing about justice and righteousness.

The famous theologian H. Richard Niebuhr called this the work of the church, “The purpose of the church is the increase of the LOVE of God and neighbor.”2

We can’t love our neighbor and allow them to be subjected to injustice. We can’t love our neighbor and allow them to go hungry, or without shelter.
We can’t love our neighbor and kill them - that’s not justice in anyone’s time.
Without a doubt it is GOD who brings justice to earth, but we have instructions to follow too. The old Brethren called it “living to the Glory of God and for our neighbor’s good”. It’s not a new concept, but it’s one the world continues to wait for Christians world-wide to embrace.

Advent begins the church year with stories that are not new to us. About a time when God created something REALLY new in Jesus. Over the next few weeks we will hear John the Baptist talk about how radical God’s time is. 
We will revisit the stories of people whose lives were turned upside down as they waited, thru pregnancies, thru muteness, in jail, and thru years of oppression for the καιρος  time to arrive and bring their salvation. 
They didn’t give up, they followed the instructions they had been given and waited for what would come. Advent teaches us that we live best by waiting on God. -Instead of trying to make things happen ourselves.

The Amarillus’ ugly, dry exterior that promises such beauty reminds us that everything about Advent is a bit mysterious and not what we’d expect. 

Advent is not a quiet time but requires we find some- or MAKE some - time of quiet. What could be more counter to a typical December’s Day of frantic activity, loud Christmas music over store intercoms, and the pressure of much to do? But being still IS necessary - at least for a little while - as we wait.
“Seeing, especially when we are looking ahead, is not always something we do with our eyes; there is a depth of vision to be gained from stillness.”

Our lives may Not be completely peaceful. Certainly this December brings some worries of a fiscal cliff, and job security, of financial indebtedness and concerns about 2013. 
For us to learn how to wait with trust for the new life to come, will take GREAT discipline. That’s where the stillness comes in. It provides us with time for renewal so we can see where God is pointing. We can begin to envision a world of justice and righteousness.
We can’t see it with our eyes yet, but in the quiet, we begin to see what God sees. It’s a hope beyond anything the human race can produce.
It is there in the stillness that we discover we HAVE learned how to wait for καιρος - God’s time to come. In the stillness we can really feel the excitement that comes with anticipating God’s future.

When company comes in for the holiday, we have lots of preparation. Sheets to be washed, food to buy, meals to plan, a calendar of days to organize. The expectation fills us with joy, so much so that we don’t MIND the work that keeps our waiting so busy.
Paul tapped into this feeling in the last text we need to hear today; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-10
How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the JOY that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.

Joy, and the longing to see each other face to face. Is that not the appropriate way to wait to meet Christ? 
And Paul was bold enough to tell his friends that he wanted to restore whatever was lacking in their faith. He was coming with instructions, - all they had to do was - wait.

We come back to our Advent agenda; ‘follow the instructions and wait’. 
When we plant an Amaryllis, we don’t know what its future self will look like. 
We have a picture, here on the box, but its of a previous bulb, ours may look different because it is grown in our own special place in this congregation. 
Surely a picture can’t compare to what will actually bloom here. 

We don’t always know what God’s future plans for us are. Even sitting in stillness may show us only a glimpse, and not the full vision of new life to come. 
But I trust,
that if we follow God’s instructions and wait for new life to appear,  we will discover the Advent of life all around us already. 
So in the weeks ahead, as you wait, Watch - for what is beautiful, look for the unexpected, let our waiting teach us skills of observation so we will see every tiny shoot of new life wherever it begins. 

OUR Christmas gift will be the spark of life -birthed by God for us to nurture. 
And the new year will find us Working alongside of God's creative power to bring alive a new world of justice. 

What could be more worth waiting for?
1Deborah A. Block Feasting On The Word -Pastoral (Louisville: WJK, 2009)4
2quoted by Phillip E. Campbell Feasting On The Word -Pastoral 1Thess (Louisville:WJK,2009)16

3 Jacqueline Winspear Pardonable Lies; Maisie Dobbs (New York:Henry Holt & Co.)